George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Watch and Learn: Observing the PBL Classroom

March 31, 2015

During one of my past teacher evaluations, I did something highly irregular: I showed the observer what a typical day in my classroom looks like. That is what we're supposed to do, right? Maybe, but not if your curriculum is project based, many might believe.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a much-discussed teaching practice in progressive education circles. However, there is pressure on teachers who teach in PBL environments, such as art classes and other "making" classes, that formal observations still require the teacher to perform the same old song-and-dance routine of the conventional lecture/demo.

While lectures and demos are key to getting a project started and moving forward with intermittent check-ins and lectures, they are not the meat and potatoes of the project-based curriculum. The core routine is the workday.

I wasn't trying to be contrary by choosing to have a typical workday observed. As an almost exclusively PBL educator, I truly wanted a sense of how I was doing with my day-to-day teaching, and was trying to figure out my weaknesses and strengths in terms that apply to the PBL classrooms. Those strengths and weaknesses are along the lines of teacher-student interaction, facilitating and assisting students in need, setting up, and closing a class period.

How'd it Go?

To be honest, when I was observed, I didn't hit it out of the park. Not that I didn't do well at what I usually do -- assist and facilitate students in their projects -- it's just that the observer didn't know what to observe. In his opinion, not much happened and therefore he didn't know how to give feedback or provide a coherent evaluation.

To be fair, there are not a lot of tools and frameworks to help observers in this case. While we celebrate PBL, maker culture, and being the guide-on-the-side, when it comes to teacher evaluations, our paradigm for teaching excellence is still rooted in the traditional lecture model of teaching.

So, the following guidelines will hopefully be helpful for teachers being observed, as well as for teachers who are observing colleagues.

Go in Prepared

Context is crucial for making a thorough observation of a PBL lesson. Of course, sitting down with the teacher beforehand is key to making sure this happens, but in addition to outlining the goal of the observation and specific teaching skills to be addressed, the observer should go in with a general sense of the project being observed in terms of the learning outcomes, a timeline, how the project has been scaffolded until that point, and what stage they are in on the day of the observation.

Micro vs. Macro Structures

The beauty of planning the day-to-day work of project is how the micro-routines, lessons, and demos fit into the larger scheme. The observer should have a sense of how the workday and routines meet (or don't meet) the larger learning outcomes.

Observe through the Lens of the Students

Observers who focus on the teacher like a hawk often miss what is actually happening in the classroom. If an observer has a choice of seating arrangements (although static seating arrangements are very unusual in PBL environments), sit alongside the teacher facing the students, instead of in the back of the room where you might miss much of what plays out during a lesson.

This might sound contrary to most observational practices, but it actually makes sense. For example, we evaluate the performance of an athletic coach by watching the players during practice and competitions. Likewise, our understanding of a teacher's performance should begin by looking at the students' learning styles, behavior, and culture, and how the teacher prompts, navigates, or responds to those fluctuating elements in the class. Observing through the lens of the students is not observing the teacher as if you were a student, but focusing on the students in order to better understand the teacher.

Circulate, Move, and Go with the Flow

Observers who stay in one spot during an observation are literally limiting themselves to a single perspective. As noted above, PBL classrooms are dynamic, not static, and getting up and moving around is key. Many observers might stay seated and off to the side in the attempt to not disrupt the natural flow of the classroom -- but their very presence makes it too late for that! Students in the highly-engaged PBL classroom will hardly notice another moving person, so go in for the close ups as well as the wide angles.

Observe the Teacher's Circulation Style and Individualized Check-ins

While it is clear that best practices in the PBL classroom require that the teacher circulate regularly throughout the learning session, what should the observer be looking for during that circulation? Much of the circulation does not always require an equal amount of student-teacher interaction per student. An astute teacher in the PBL environment knows when to interact with a particular student, for how long, and when to step back and let the student work without interruption from the teacher.

However, each student should receive teacher attention, whether it is somewhat passive or highly interactive -- some students require a little prodding during check-ins, while others might over-share. The PBL teacher is attuned to each student's project, learning style, and how much interaction or intervention is required. For the observer, this might be baffling at times, but take notes and be sure to ask about particular instances after the observation.

Listen in on One-to-One Conversations

Much of the foundational pedagogy in the PBL classrooms happens in one-to-one conversations or in small groups. In my opinion, the best practice is inquiry based, so the observer should hear the teacher ask, and respond, with questions. For example:

  • How did that last attempt go?
  • Did you figure it out?
  • What would it look like if you tried it that way?
  • Have you thought about. . . ?

Also, these check-ins should end with open-ended advice (unless clear intervention is necessary) and affirmations. Be sure to observe these conversations. Again, it might mean getting out of your seat and getting up-close and personal.

Ask the Students

One of the clearest strategies for gaining insights into a teacher's performance is to ask students about their work. As the observer, do you note a consistency in language that the students use? Do they show a level of metacognition in regard to their learning, why the process is the way it is, and why the project is organized the way it is? Do they have a sense of the learning outcome, as well as the goal? Does their tone reflect a sense of ownership in regard to their role or individual project?

One Class Session Is Not Enough

As it is often said, PBL values breadth over depth. When observing the PBL classroom, the same principle applies. This might mean more hours for your admin or colleague, but the payoff is worth it. How many observations are necessary? In my opinion, three is the magic number.

Plan your observations around the beginning, middle, and end of a project. How does the teacher introduce the project? Are there periodic check-ins? How do students evaluate, share, and reflect on their work at the end?

Observers and teachers might also consider project-specific student course evaluations as another layer of the observation.

Classroom Culture of the PBL Classroom

Take note of the classroom culture. Such as:

  • Independence in use of space and access to tools and resources
  • Participation from everyone
  • Attention paid (if not always direct interaction) to everyone
  • Students comfort level in social interactions
  • The way students feel free to learn and support one another
  • Protocols for getting assistance or getting excused
  • Routines for beginning and ending the class (prompts, goals, closure)

Follow up

After the observation, the observer might have more questions than answers. If enough planning happens before the observation, questions will lean toward clarification instead of the search for explanation.

The observer and teacher should discuss specific interactions to get a sense of the context, prior conversations, students' academic history, an understanding of who the student is in that particular classroom, and what challenges and opportunities they present to the teacher. Finally, the teacher should be ready to share about how the observed lesson will be followed through during subsequent classes.

The move toward PBL in education is an exciting trend. As educators, we must make sure that we are nurturing and guiding the development of PBL curricula with as much care and consideration as it takes to plan, teach, and complete a long-term project with our students.

What other criteria should we bring to observing the PBL classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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